Tagore experienced the death of his family members time and again and often in quick succession. Tragedy first struck Tagore at the young age of 14 when his mother, Sharada Devi, passed away in 1875. Then, in April 1884, Kadambari Devi, Tagore’s favourite sister- in-law, confidante and muse, committed suicide. Kadambari Devi’s demise was Tagore’s first mature understanding of the grim reality of death, which left him shattered. The death of Kadambari Devi forever changed his way of thinking. In My Reminiscences Tagore wrote:
“My acquaintance with death in my twenty-fourth year was a permanent one. Merging its pain with grief of every successive bereavement since then, it has continued to weave a long garland of tears …
I was unaware then of the slightest lack anywhere in my life; there seemed no loophole in its tightly woven fabric of laughter and tears. Nothing was visible beyond it, hence I had accepted it as the ultimate truth. And then death suddenly arrived from somewhere. In a single instant, it tore away one end of this very visible fabric of life. How bewildered I felt now!”
In November 1902, tragedy befell Tagore once again when Mrinalini Devi, who was married to Tagore for 19 years, passed away at the young age of 30. Within a few months of Mrinalini Devi’s death, Tagore’s second daughter, Renuka, died in September 1903 when she was only 13. Tagore had to grapple with death yet once again when his father, Debendranath Tagore, died in 1905. If the tragic deaths of his wife, daughter and father were not enough, Tagore suffered another devastating blow when his youngest son, Samindranath, suddenly died of cholera in 1907 at the age of 13. According to Tagore’s eldest son, Rathindranath, Samindranath’s death left Tagore brokenhearted.
Despite Tagore’s immense grief at the deaths of his family members, he still found great sense of fulfilment and joy. In fact, Tagore made death his friend as C.F. Andrews has noted in Letters to a Friend: “Death itself became a “loved companion ~ no longer the king of terrors, but altogether transformed into cherished friend.” Tagore had the following to say about death to C.F. Andrews:
“You know, this death was a great blessing to me. I had through it all, day after day, a sense of fulfillment, of completion, as if nothing was lost. I felt that if even an atom in the universe seemed lost, it could never actually perish. It was not mere resignation that came to me, but the sense of a fuller life. I knew then, at last, what Death was. It was perfection.” (Quoted in C.F. Andrews’ Letters to a Friend).
Tagore has written extensively on the inevitability of death. In the song “Achhe Dukkho Achhe Mrityu,” (Pain Exists, Death Exists), Tagore reminds us that death and sorrow are an essential part of life. Even when clouds of sorrow hang over us amidst death, there’s still peace, completeness and joy in this world. Death can never steal the beauty and the natural flow and rhythm of human life:
“There exists pain, exists death The pain of separation burns one And yet reigns peace, prevails happiness in eternity Flows the ceaseless life-stream, beams the sun, moon, the stars Spring arrives in the forest in varied hues Waves ebb, they rise again Flowers wilt as they bloom again There’s no destruction, no trace of misery My soul desires to take refuge at the feet of that completeness” (Translation by Ratna Dey).
Since death is inevitable and can’t be avoided, Tagore treats death as a guest, letting him into his home with folded hands:
“Death, thy servant, is at my door … The night is dark and my heart is fearful –yet I will take up the lamp, open my gates and bow to him my welcome … I will worship him with folded hands, and with tears. I will worship him placing at his feet the treasure of my heart.” (No. 86, Gitanjali). In another poem, also in Gitanjali, we find Tagore welcoming death in his house and offering the vessel of life that contains both the sweetness and bitterness of life:
“On the day when death will knock at thy door what wilt thou offer to him? Oh, I will set before my guest, the full vessel of my life … All the sweet vintage of all my autumn days and summer nights, all the earnings and gleanings of my busy life will I place before him at the close of my days when death will knock at my door”. (No. 90, Gitanjali).
In several of Tagore’s poems, life and death take on the role of either a bride, bridegroom or lover. For example, in the following poem in Gitanjali, life is represented as a bride who is waiting for death, the bridegroom, to take her to the abode of the supreme being:
“The flowers have been woven and the garland is ready for the bridegroom. After the wedding the bride shall leave her home and meet her Lord alone in the solitude of night” (No. 91, Gitanjali).
In “Wings of Death,” life takes on the role of the bridegroom while death becomes the bride. Tagore creates an intimate relationship between life and death and this union of the two signifies the beginning of the journey towards possible unification with the supreme being:
“I saw that the bride of Death, taking The supreme gift from her bridegroom, And bearing it in her arms, Travels towards the new Age.” In “Bhagna Hriday” (The Broken Heart), life pines for her beloved death: “Death my dearest, my life, my Lord, When shall we be united? When shall we take leave of the deathbed of life?” (Translation by Sumanta K. Bhowmick).
There’s a deep-rooted longing to meet death yet once again in “Purno Milan” (Complete Union):
“Love, my heart yearns day and night to meet with you – for the encounter that is like all-devouring death … In that devastation, in the utter nakedness of spirit, let us become united in endless beauty.” ( Translation by Sumanta K. Bhowmick).
Similarly, in Tagore’s “Gardener,” there’s intense yearning on the part of the bride to be united with death, her bridegroom, in a celebratory manner:
“Come with your conch-shells sounding, come in the sleepless night. Dress me with crimson mantle, grasp my hand and take me. Let your chariot be ready at my door with your horses neighing impatiently. Raise my veil and look at me proudly, O Death, my Death.”
Tagore perceived life and death as being intertwined; they complement each other in the cycle of life. The synergistic relationship between the two is explained in the brief quote from Tagore’s “Stray Birds”:
“Death belongs to life as birth does. The walk is in the raising of the foot as in the Lying of it down.”
Since life and death are both natural truths and certainties of life and life culminates in death, Tagore described death in Sadhana as “the extinction of lamp in the morning light, not the abolition of sun.”
Tagore was deeply influenced by the Hindu philosophical belief that we are all bound in the cycle of life consisting of births and deaths. We go from one life to another. So, death is just one incident in life. And, in this cycle of life, soul is transcendental and indestructible. This philosophical thought is beautifully captured in the Tagore’s song “Jokhon Porbe Na Mor Payer Chinho Ei Bate” (When My Steps Will Fall on This Path No More), where Tagore tells us that even if we don’t remember the person who has departed from this world it doesn’t matter because his soul will always be here with us and life will continue to go on as it always did:
“Who says that I shall not remain in your mornings anymore the same me shall join you in all fun and frolic, You will call me by a new name and embrace me with fresh fervour And I shall remain with you forever; So, you need not remember me then And look for me among the distant stars.” (Translation by Siddhartha Sen).
Although Tagore suffered many bereavements in his life, these tragedies could never subdue his intense love of life. In Rabindranath Tagore: A Biography, Krishna Kripalani has stated that death could not break Tagore. It gave him “a deeper understanding of life and the meaning of life.” Despite all the deaths in his life, Tagore still found joy and sublime beauty in the vast universe. Tagore wrote:
“Once again, I wake up when the night has waned when the world opens all its petals once more, and this is an endless wonder.” (Quoted in Krishna Kripalani’s Rabindranath Tagore: A Biography).
The writer is Professor Emeritus in Communication Studies Department at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles